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Bangladesh has recently executed two leaders convicted of war crimes during the ’71 war. By doing so it has sent out an unambiguous message to Islamists. Will the West Bengal government too gather the courage to take on the Islamist radicals?

Our eastern neighbour Bangladesh is on high alert since Sunday after executing two politicians for war crimes committed during the country’s war of independence in 1971.

Circumstances are such due to threats of violence by the supporters of the executed leaders—Jamaat-e-Islami’s general secretary, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, and Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury.

Both leaders had been found guilty on charges of genocide, conspiracy in killing intellectuals, torture and genocide.

Although at present the Jamaat-e-Islami has been deregistered by the Bangladesh High Court, authorities are being watchful after a spate of killings claimed by Islamist extremists including the murders of four bloggers, a publisher and two foreigners since February this year. All the perpetrators had been associated with Jamaat-e-Islami. The party itself has a very chequered past, as will be explained below.

This Islamic revivalist organization was founded in 1941 by an Islamic scholar from Hyderabad named Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. Known at the timeasJamaat-e-Islami Hind, this organization fervently opposed the Partition of India. But the opposition was not out of secular leanings but due to fear that it would divide the massive Muslim populace of the subcontinent.

Another reason for the Jamaat’s opposition was the fact that it considered Jinnah and most Muslim League leaders unfit to lead the ummah because they were inadequately Islamic. Nonetheless, when Pakistan came into existence, Maududi and his supporters moved to Lahore with the aim of creating an Islamic state.

Although earlier the Jamaat opposed democracy as an inadequate human creation, the party later decided to enter electoral politics in order to gain some acceptability. As is the case with almost all extremist parties, Jamaat was not inhibited about coordinating violent activities to make a point. This disturbing aspect of the Jamaat was seen in 1953 when Maududi instigated the anti-Ahmadiyya violence in Lahore which led to loss of several lives; the violence receded following the imposition of martial law in Lahore.

Initially, Maududi was arrested by the martial law authorities and was sentenced to death, but his massive popularity among many Pakistanis led to the sentence being commuted. As a token of gratitude, Maududi’s followers gave assistance to the military of regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan from the late 1950’s. But then, in the late 1960’s, when the military regime was losing popularity, the Jamaat, rapidly changed sides and through its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, supported the popular uprisings leading to Khan’s dethronement in 1969.

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This dethronement was followed next year by democratic elections in Pakistan with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League (AL) gaining victory on the issue of maximum autonomy for East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). However, the then Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan as well as Mujib’s rival and popular political personality, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was not in agreement with his demands. Also a point to note would be the fact that the Jamaat won 4-6% of votes, against AL’s 70%.

Within a short time, disagreements on the issue of autonomy led to hostilities causing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to be arrested. The civil unrest that followed his arrest climaxed to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Now, the function of the Jamaat in this scenario needs to be mentioned.

The Jamaat leaders during the war anticipated the Pakistan army to overpower the armed Bengali freedom fighters and eliminate the Awami League. It is for that reason Golam Azam, the chief of Jamaat’s East Pakistan division, became an important member of the pro-Pakistan camp.

Along with the political support, members of Islami Chhatra Shibir during that time formed pro-Pakistan paramilitaries called the Al Badr whose death squads have been accused of killing several intellectuals and activists during the war. The Al Badr militants also acted as informers for the Pakistan army, taking them to the residents of Hindu families as well as hiding places of pro-Independence activists. On locating these families, the Al Badr informants encouraged the army-men to loot the family, rape the female members and ultimately slaughter them.

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This was noted by many international reporters as stated in this report:

Sydney Schanberg, then correspondent of the New York Times, noted this selective approach, ‘the [Pakistani] army is now concentrating on Hindus, the killing is more selective, [and] has not stopped.’ Schanberg further recorded how the Pakistan army had ‘painted big yellow H’s on the Hindu shops to identify the property of the minority, eighth of the population that it has made it special targets.’

Archer Blood, the ‘dissenting diplomat’, then American Consul General in Dhaka cabled on March 29, 1971 on how the ‘Hindus [were] particular focus of [the] campaign and how the army was ‘going after Hindus with a vengeance.’

Veteran Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, who fled to London in order to tell the truth about the Pakistan army wrote in exasperation in his columns in the Sunday Times that the Pakistani military operation had two distinctive features: ‘ One, the cleansing process’, the other ‘rehabilitation effort’ — ‘turning East Bengal into a ‘docile colony of West Pakistan.’

After Bangladesh gained independence, the government of the day led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League banned religion-based political parties, causing most Jamaat leaders, including Golam Azam, to escape to places like Pakistan, the Gulf nations and the United Kingdom.

But things changed by 1975, when Bangladesh faced socio-political instability caused by faulty policies of the government. To handle the instability, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman created BAKSHAL, which was a form of a draconian one-party rule. But that did not help as Rahman was assassinated in a military coup in 15 August of the same year leading the country to an uncertain scenario.

This uncertainty was alleviated by Major General Ziaur Rahman who emerged as the country’s de facto ruler in 1976. After gaining power, Ziaur Rahman slowly introduced political reforms, which included lifting of bans on all parties except Jamaat-e-Islami since the Election Commission doubted the party’s pledge to Bangladesh’s independence.

Nevertheless, Golam Azam returned to Bangladesh but held a Pakistan passport since his citizenship was revoked by the Awami League government in 1973.The Jamaat formally started operating under its own name in 1982 after Lt. General HM Ershad assumed power in another military coup following Ziaur Rahman’s assassination. After several considerations, the party entered electoral politics in the middle of 1980s, making a calculated coalition with most political groups in the country even though it maintained its Islamist agenda.

Two decades later in the 2001 general elections the BNP led alliance gained with the Jamaat as a key partner. Following this victory, the Jamaat-BNP alliance charitably backed institutions that promoted radical Islam. The mass persecution and subsequent exodus of Hindus during that period is a well-known tragedy (although studiously ignored by Indian secularists).

During that time the Jamaat went as far as deny their wicked role in 1971.The recently executed Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, had the audacity to claim that the anti-liberation forces never existed.

Another issue the Jamaat focused on during their time in power was the circumstances in the regions bordering India. This was because in their view, the Indian support to the 1971 war was really about preventing the Jamaat’s rise to political power. Thus, the Jamaat leaders believed that in the event of another Indian intervention to impede a Jamaat-led government, these areas would provide resistance.

The said areas at the time were also affected by left-wing extremists, and as a counter the Jamaat gave subtle support to a radical Islamist organisation Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh which was founded in 1998 in Palampur, Dhaka. Its stated purpose was to neutralize left-wing extremists, and put an end to cultural functions, as well as to shut down cinema halls, and end the functioning of dargahs.

Predictably, it soon emerged as a dreaded terror outfit and was involved in carrying out bomb blasts in several districts of Bangladesh on 12 January 2005. Their dreadful network of terror was discovered on 17 August 2005, when 500 small bombs at three hundred locations across Bangladesh detonated within the space of 30 minutes. The top leaders of the JMB were arrested by the country’s security forces in early 2006 and following a trial on 29 March 2007, six top leaders of the organization were executed.

The Jamaat members are also believed to have links with various terrorist groups operating in South Asia, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the Hizbul-Mujahideen. According to news reports , Jamaat and the Islami Chhatra Shibir have also served as significant recruiting bases for radical Islamist organizations in Bangladesh including Hizb-ur-Tahrir, and of course the JMB.

Jamaat-e-Islami is also accused of laundering money for a group associated with Al-Qaeda and the International Islamic Front, and has funnelled funds to other Islamic militant groups through its control of Islami Bank Bangladesh. Even after such dreadful accusations the Jamaat-e-Islami escaped legal inspection due to scarcity of evidence and limited political will.

But that changed in 2010 when the Bangladesh government, led by the Awami League, began prosecuting the leaders accused of war crimes committed during 1971 under the International Crimes Tribunal.  Things took a worse turn for Jamaat on 1 August 2013, when the Bangladesh High Court de-registered the party banning it from participating in future elections, a verdict the Supreme Court maintained.

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From the beginning Jamaat-e-Islami leaders have been saying that the trials were part of a political conspiracy, an assertion rejected by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Since the the tribunal was set up, two other senior Jamaat-e-Islami party leaders have been executed for charges of looting, destruction of property and genocide in the midst of 18 people convicted of such crimes; most of the convicts are leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami.

With such executions many Bangladeshi intellectuals are claiming that an era of darkness will come to an end and finally justice will be delivered to those who supported and even sacrificed their lives for Bangladesh’s independence.

Should India Be Concerned?

As I explained inthesearticles, West Bengal has turned into a safe harbour for cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami, some of whom are thought to be responsible for last year’s Burdwan blasts.  This creepy effort to bring the Bengalis of both sides together may cause harm to India’s own national security. Things got a bit more complicated by Mamata Banerjee’s decision to nominate for Rajya Sabha Ahmed Hassan Imran, a man accused of communal violence along with acting as a go-between to anti-India Islamists in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government itself prepared a report on how this MP helped shift funds from the Saradha scammers to Jamaat’s radicals.If the past is something to go by we should be prepared.

In early 2013, a contentious crowd filled with members of a coalition of Islamic organisations like the All-Bengal Muslim Youth Federation, the Sunnat-ul-Jama’at, the Madrasa Student Union and the Welfare Party of India, gathered in Kolkata from all over the state of West Bengal to oppose the death sentence given to war-criminal Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. These groups led by eminent Muslim leaders such as Syed Md Nurur Rahman Barkati, Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Masjid (a supporter of the TMC) went as far as issuing threats to block future visits of the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina (To know the charges against Sayeedi head here).  

Syed Jalaluddin Umari, the head of the Jama’at-e-Islami Hind at that time repeated Mujahid’s lie –no war crimes had taken place in Bangladesh. Sadly none of the major political parties in West Bengal staged counter-protests against the defenders of genocide. Now that another major member of the Jamaat met his deserving fate it is critical that Indian intelligence stays alert against any suspicious moves.